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Retention Tension

Ah, spring is in the air! Trees are blossoming, birds are singing and packages of Easter candy line the aisles at Target.

Oh, and it’s time for the annual performance evaluation.


This process seems to strike fear in the hearts of faculty. Since I began in this position in January, I’ve heard a lot of angst expressed over one component of the evaluation in particular: retention rates.

There is so much angst, in fact, that I am devoting my very first blog post to this subject. I’ll admit that I have wrestled with this evaluation criterion myself, but I’ve finally found some peace with it. So let me share my thought process on why it’s okay to use retention as a component of the faculty performance evaluation. I can’t expect you all to read my mind, so hopefully after I provide my viewpoint, we can all relax just a little.

The way I view it, there are a few myths associated with retention:



MYTH #1:  Faculty are not responsible for retention. First of all, let me say that I understand this thinking. Let’s face it: many of our students are a hot mess. They have financial problems, health concerns and personal issues that can–and do–prevent them from staying in class. Their lives are chaotic and messy. And no matter how much we want them to stay in class, no matter what we do in the classroom, no matter the number of cartwheels and back-flips we turn, some of them just simply won’t stay. Or maybe the class you’re teaching is just super-duper hard for many students, so they end up dropping–especially if their goal is a selective admissions program, and they just can’t have a less-than-stellar grade on their transcript. So why is it fair to evaluate an instructor on this criterion?

Here’s why:

While you are not 100% responsible for a student staying in your class, neither are you 0% responsible. There is plenty of research out there to indicate that faculty certainly play a role in student retention and success. And that’s a good thing, right? I mean, I certainly hope my presence in class makes students want to stay, work hard and succeed. Otherwise, what am I doing here? While I can’t be solely responsible for retention, I definitely bear some responsibility. To put this in really pragmatic terms, even if my retention rate is abysmal, I lose only 8 out of 100 points on my evaluation, placing me at a 92 (still in the “Always exceeds expectations” category).

MYTH #2: “So if it’s such a small piece of the evaluation, there’s no point in measuring it anyway.” Sure there is. The retention rate serves a couple of purposes:

1. It’s an objective way to measure a component that is highly critical to student success. If my retention rate is poor semester after semester, I need to think about why. It can be tempting to point to factors like a changed administrative withdrawal policy or guided self-placement as a reason for poor retention, but that’s short-sighted. And before I get a lot of hate email, can those factors play a role in retention? Of course they can! But unless all the other faculty in my department are seeing retention rates similar to mine, I need to not be so quick to abdicate my responsibility. I need to think about how to improve. Measuring and recording retention rates every semester is a good way to check myself. Repeat after me: “There is no shame in needing to improve some aspect of my job performance.” (I’ve been saying this to myself a lot lately!)

2. Retention is one piece of a very big picture. As I stated earlier, even if your retention rate is really poor, it accounts for very few points of your evaluation. It is one indicator out of many of your overall job performance. If there are other indicators of substandard performance, then this is a way to formulate a comprehensive picture of performance.

MYTH #3: “If my retention is bad, I’m going to be fired.” Well, no. Again, you are evaluated on your overall performance, not just this one small aspect of it. If the brakes go out on your car, are you going to get rid of your car? No, you’re going to attempt to fix the brakes. That’s a simplistic analogy, but it’s fitting. If your retention is not the best, then have the conversation with your department chair, program director, or dean about how to improve it. If you need ideas about improving retention, let us help you. Email or for training and resources. Once again, THERE IS NO SHAME!

So let’s all take a deep breath. We are in the learning business. If we aren’t open to learning and growing ourselves, how are we supposed to convince our students they should be?

As legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Here’s to learning and growing with pride, not shame.






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